The search for truth
Letter from Paul Signac, 16 May 1926. Archives code: AG 1-IICI-OIM-VI-4. Collection of UNESCO Archives.
The early 20th century saw the development of technologies to detect forgeries and fakes: chemical tests and radiography began to be used for the identification of master paintings. Indeed, in 1926, the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (IICI) launched a wide-reaching investigation into the protection of works of art. Specialists were approached with three questions posed by the Institute: Is it necessary to create international organizations for the protection of art? How should such organizations act? And what expert methods should be employed? Paul Signac, founder and president of the Societé des Artistes Indépendants (Society of Independent Artists), and inventor of the Pointillist style along with Georges Seurat, replied.
His letter is filed in the UNESCO Archives, repository of the records of the Institute. Paul Signac, a celebrated artist during his lifetime, reveals a perhaps surprising skepticism about scientific expertise in the domain of art. He does not answer the Institute’s questions, but instead, reminds his interlocutors that experts are not infaillible, and suggests that doubt plays a more important role than certitude.
Transcription of the letter:
Je reçois ici votre aimable lettre du 3 mai. Veuillez excuser mon retard involontaire à y répondre.
Je pense que toute recherche de la vérité est bonne dans la vie artistique comme dans la vie sociale. Mais je pense aussi qu'il faut être très prudent dans les expertises, même pour celles qui se présentent avec les meilleures apparences scientifiques. Souvent j'ai, pour donner mon avis, sur l'identification d'oeuvres d'art, douté de moi-même - même devant les quasi-certitudes. Et je n'ai pas eu toujours à le regretter.
Si les artistes hésitent ... les savants pourront-ils affirmer ? Que d'experts scientifiques, se sont trompés ! Soyez donc prudents.
Veuillez agréer monsieur, l'assurance de mes sentiments les plus distingués.
English translation of the letter:
I received your kind letter of 3rd May. Please excuse my involuntary delay in responding.
I think that the pursuit of truth is worthwhile in artistic as well as in social life. But I also think that we must be very careful in our expertise, even for those who present themselves with the best scientific proofs. I have often, to give my saying so, doubted myself – even when faced with quasi-certainties. And I have not always had reason to regret it.
If artists hesitate...can scholars claim certitude? How many experts have been mistaken! Let us be cautious then.
Please accept, Sir, the assurance of my highest consideration.
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Sarah Rigaudeau, project assistant